SURFING CULTURE IN DELRAY BEACH, FLORIDA BY TOM WARNKE
Palm Beach County, Florida is home to thousands of stoked surfers and a rich surfing culture. Much of that culture is rooted in the oceanfront community of Delray Beach, dubbed “Village by The Sea” years ago. Not only is there real surf culture here, but local surfers can also rightly brag about the wave quality. Although surfers are accused of always searching for the perfect wave, Delray Beach is one of many places they can actually be found.
By 1963 surfing was already an established lifestyle in Delray Beach, supporting two of the first surfboard factories in Florida. The Caribbean Surfboard Company and Richie Surfboards were manufacturing hundreds of longboards each year, downtown on Delray Beach’s iconic Atlantic Avenue. On many weekends there were more than 100 surfers crowding the surfing area. Surfboards rented for $2.00 per day and gasoline sold for 20 cents a gallon.
THE BAHAMA ISLANDS LIE JUST OFFSHORE OF SOUTH FLORIDA AND BLOCK MOST WAVES FROM GETTING TO THIS PART OF THE COAST, SO SMART LOCAL SURFERS OF ALL AGES CHECK FORECASTS OFTEN AND KEEP THEIR SCHEDULES FLEXIBLE, ESPECIALLY DURING THE WINTER SURF SEASON. WHOLE FAMILIES HEAD FOR THE OCEAN WHEN GOOD WAVES ARE EXPECTED, AND WE OFTEN KNOW A FEW DAYS IN ADVANCE SO WE CAN PLAN OUR WORK AROUND OUR TIME IN THE OCEAN.
One of Delray’s first surfboard “shapers” was 16-year-old Ron Heavyside, who hand-shaped custom boards at Caribbean while attending Seacrest High School. By 1968 he opened his own factory and a retail shop on A1A, Nomad Surfboards. He became one of the most innovative and prolific shapers in the U. S., shaping more than 10,000 custom boards. Now his two sons run the business and Ron is retired, but he still shapes an occasional board at age 68.
These days Delray Beach includes many “ocean aficionados.” They are active members of groups such as the Eastern Surfing Association, Surfrider Foundation and the Palm Beach County Surfing History Project, with local surfing history exhibits open to the public at the Sandoway Discovery Center overlooking the ocean. Delray’s mayor, Cary Glickstein, even founded an annual Surf Festival each fall to benefit the city’s Ocean Rescue Lifeguards.
The Bahama Islands lie just offshore of South Florida and block most waves from getting to this part of the coast, so smart local surfers of all ages check forecasts often and keep their schedules flexible, especially during the winter surf season. Whole families head for the ocean when good waves are expected, and we often know a few days in advance so we can plan our work around our time in the ocean.
Delray Beach can brag about getting some of the highest quality waves on the East Coast, though the frequency of waves is less than other areas. What makes the waves here so special? Three reasons. 1. The Delray Beach area has the closest beaches to the Gulf Stream Current, which is the largest moving body of water in the world. Waves which travel here from winter storms are focused on our sand bars by the current, providing excellent surfing when neighboring towns have much smaller waves. 2. We enjoy rare “Slot Swells” which sneak through a narrow passage in the Bahamas. This is rare, but our ten-mile stretch can light up with great surf a few times a year as a result. As they say, you just have to know when to go. 3. There are a couple half-mile-long dredge pits just offshore which focus wave peaks into Delray, causing better conditions than beaches for miles around. Oh, and our clear blue ocean here never goes below 70 degrees, even on the coldest winter days. Once again, thanks to the warm Gulf Stream Current flowing northward a few miles to the east of Delray.
Decent surf can be found along Delray’s three-mile shoreline at least 100 days per year, usually no more than three to six feet high. But on rare occasions the ocean at Delray serves
up true, Hawaiian-quality waves. That’s what happened on Super Bowl Monday, 2016. Two days earlier, “Winter Storm Mars” howled in the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast, creating a large, long-period groundswell headed directly for Palm Beach County. The swell arrived at dawn, overhead in size, breaking with precision from north to south along Delray’s sandbars. By afternoon the waves had doubled in size and conditions were perfect for surfing; 75-degree water with light offshore breezes grooming the glassy swells to perfection. Some of the best surfers were “locked in” on full-speed, double-overhead waves for 200 yards. Delray scored better waves from that storm than anywhere else on the coast. We called it “The Swell from Mars”, and it went down in history as one of the largest, most perfect days in Delray Beach surfing history.
When you visit Delray, check the forecast or stop by one of our local surf shops to see what ocean conditions are expected. The ocean can be flat for weeks at a time, but sometimes perfect waves come to Delray Beach.
Surfing the Atlantic waves in South Florida
One of the many beach paths going down to the water in Delray